QUESTION: Do you know, or can you speculate on, what the “thorn in Paul’s fleah” might have been that he spoke of in 2 Corinthians 12:7? The reason I ask is its nice to know these things about elements of the Bible. So many people who are just starting to get into the Word with the intention of really obeying it seem to get hung up on these types of questions and its good to have an answer for them, plus it helps my faith as well.
By the way, Dr. Oakes, I saw you speak at the Greater Las Vegas Church of Christ in 2012 about Daniel. Thanks for doing that, I think everyone got something out of it.
First of all, this is not an important question. It does not have any significant affect on how we will behave as Christians and it is not a doctrinal question either, as far as I know, so it is really mostly a curiosity. Of course, I am curious about this as well, and cannot blame you for being curious. As you imply, it is always good for us to be able to answer questions like this when they come up even if it is not a key issue.
As for answering your question, your intuition is correct in that any attempt at an answer requires speculation. If you read a good commentary on 2 Corinthians you will find a number of speculations/explanations. Suggestions for the “thorn in my flesh” of Paul includes a speech impediment, which might explain his statement that he is not an impressive speaker. I am a bit doubtful of this, as Paul seems to be very humble to call himself a poor speaker, given how we know he could keep large crowd enraptured for hours. Another explanation is that Paul had some sort of unidentified chronic disease, such as lupus or a mild form of muscular dystrophy or any of many chronic diseases. Still another explanation which has been proposed is that Paul had a particular temptation which dogged him, even after many years as a Christian. Romans 7 has been given as a reason to accept this view.
Bottom line, we do not know what the “thorn in the flesh” is. Anyone who tells you they know what it is should not be trusted. If God wanted us to know what it is he would have told us. In any case, the spiritual teaching we glean from the comment from Paul about his thorn in the flesh is the same, whether it was an illness, a disease or a temptation. Whichever it was, what is taught is that God will not always take away our burdens, but will sometimes let us have such struggles because we can grow to rely on him in our struggles. Relying on God is more important and, ultimately more satisfying to us, than having perfect health or a life without struggles.